Is a new populist movement emerging?

Frank Rich of the New York Times believes such a movement is now gestating. While mostly addressing Obama's recent Cabinet nominee debacles, Rich had this to say:

The tsunami of populist rage coursing through America is bigger than Daschle's overdue tax bill, bigger than John Thain's trash can, bigger than any bailed-out C.E.O.'s bonus. It's even bigger than the Obama phenomenon itself. It could maim the president's best-laid plans and what remains of our economy if he doesn't get in front of the mounting public anger.

With respect to the President and his administration, it has surely become evident this past week that Obama's pressing political problems cannot be confined to the "bad apples" which surface from time to time. Rather, each mini-problem — or scandal — also points to a growing and public discourse about the country, one that expresses the belief that "our way of life" might cease to exist sometime soon.

A fear of this sort can be quite potent, as one would expect, especially when it is reinforced by evidence and collective agreement. In this instance it expresses the evidence-supported sense that the existential survival of the American people cannot be taken for granted and the sense that the future is known in some way (Americans expect to be worse off than they were in the recent past) but also uncertain in its particulars (will I and mine survive). When considered as such, this fear can and eventually may produce a significant political problem for any sitting federal government since it can, when prevalent and active, undermine the motivations individuals and groups need to respect and use if they are to participate as committed members of this society. In short, a legitimation crisis awaits America as just one of its possible futures originating in the developmental path now before the country. This kind of crisis reflects the existential threat of the moment.

Although this particular fear may seem fantastic with respect to a wealthy and powerful country like the United States, it has been just this kind of crisis that has recently troubled countries such as Iceland and Latvia, Greece and South Korea, as Naomi Kline points out. The United States need not be immune to an eruption of popular protest. Nor should it be considered safe from a disastrous instance of social disintegration. It has known both traumas before this moment. And together they might generate the kind of system collapse last seen when the Soviet Union imploded.

In any case, I would guess that the presence of popular contention would be the sort of events that could "maim" the Obama administration, as Rich puts it.

Yet, and to conclude, is "maim" the right word to use here? I ask because I wonder whether the Obama administration actually deserves the strong popular support he has had so far given his reluctance to tackle the real problems which vex the country. Given the Obama administration's centrist and co-habitationalist tendencies, we may surely wonder what America's "people" might do once the crisis deepens and both parties appear complicit in origin and course? What the present moment requires is a new social contract, one that includes a more equitable and rational distribution of the country's wealth and risks. This would be change in which many Americans can place their trust. But is this the path that Obama and his administration plan to take?

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